In the stringed instrument family, the harp is one of the most ethereal of instruments in this class of musical instruments and it is also the largest in physical size among them. In my observations, although it is quite capable of profound sonic beauty, it is one of those instruments that has not gained the wide public acceptance it is so deserving of and at the same time it holds a permanent position in the orchestra.
On an historical front, the oldest kin to the harp is the lyre discovered to have been in use in ancient Greece almost 3,500 years ago. The three oldest known instruments, aside from the voice and the hands used to produce sound, were the drum, hand carved bone pipes and the harp2. There are references3 to the harp which go back to Ur in ancient Sumer, now Iraq, to the Cyclades4 of Greece and to ancient Egypt dating back approximately 5,000 years ago making the harp one of the oldest musical instruments known.
There appears to be a renewed interest in the harp since the 1800’s as it is now being used as a solo stringed instrument, part of an ensemble and in the orchestra. There are several styles for the harp including the concert harp, pedal harp, celtic harp, folk harp, cross-strung harp among others.
Yolanda Kondonassis is celebrated as one of the world’s premiere solo harpists and Grammy nominated performing classical artist with 17 CD’s to her credit (at this time). The following video is a three segment video featuring the following compositions, each offering more insight into the capabilities of the harp as well as the virtuosic skills of harpist Yolanda Kondonassis. It was selected for use in this article for demonstrating the incredible beauty and versatility of the harp and also as an introduction of Yolanda Kondonassis for those who have not had the pleasure of hearing her music.
Domenico Scarlatti: Sonata in A Major, K. 208
Trad. Chinese/Arr. Kondonassis: Small River Flowing
Carlos Salzedo: Chanson dans la nuit
As Ms. Kondonassis states, “…sonorities, colors and special effects…” are made possible using various performance techniques. Her performances are exquisite and demonstrate a variety of techniques as well as the ethereal nature of the harp.
Special thanks go out to NPR, YouTube and Ms. Yolanda Kondonassis for this video. It is being used under the YouTube non-commercial and educational embed guidelines.
We hope that this general introduction and overview of the harp has inspired you to learn more about it and maybe it has inspired you enough to consider making the harp your instrument of choice.
1 Source: Music in History, The Evolution of an Art, American Book Company, New York, NY 1949, page 36 The photo of the silver lyre was provided by The University Museum of Philadelphia for inclusion in the book Music in History, The Evolution of an Art as a courtesy to the publisher. It was provided and included in the original publication dated in 1940.The Silver boat-shaped lyre was excavated from the royal tombs in ancient Ur with an estimated date of 3,000 B.C.E.
2 Source: Music in History, The Evolution of an Art, American Book Company, New York, NY 1949, page 32 – Modern archaeological research has unearthed in Mesopotamia what is supposed to be the oldest instrument known to man a double pipe made of bone. This was probably human, since it was the custom of primitive man to use parts of the human skeleton for such a purpose. The experts have figured that this instrument was made during the Chalcolithic Age, a period between the Bronze Age and the Stone Age, some three thousand years before Christ. It seems that all three of the instruments which appear first in history the pipe, the drum, and the harp originated in Asia and were quickly distributed over the world then known.
3 Source: The Harvard Dictionary of Music, 4th Edition, page 384. Published by Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 2003
4 Source: Wikipedia – The Cyclades is a Greek island group in the Aegean Sea, south-east of the mainland of Greece; and a former administrative prefecture of Greece.
The top photo or the article image used in this presentation is a still photo taken from the film Story of a Luthier by producer and director Alberto Bona. The photo is used under written permission from the copyright owner and permission to use this photo for any other means is strictly denied. Your use of the photograph would be in violation of International Copyright Law.
The Silver Lyre photograph is in the public domain.